"This judge, jury, executioner thing—where they're just tearing this girl's life apart and diving into her parents and her parents' voting record," said Chris Harrison, the long-suffering host of ABC's The Bachelor franchise, in an interview last week about cancel culture. "It's unbelievably alarming to watch this."
Or perhaps I should say that he was the host of the dating game-show, which debuted with him as Master of Ceremonies nearly 20 years ago. He has since been canceled for the above remarks—in other words, for saying we should wait for the facts and show a little mercy when deciding how to proceed in the face of online claims leveled against one of the show's contestants.
The controversy goes something like this: In a viral Tiktok, an alleged former classmate of Rachael Kirkconnell, a frontrunner on this season's competition, posed a question. "Girlieee, remember when you bullied me in high school for liking black guys???" That was certainly inconvenient for Kirkconnell, who is currently on national television dating Matt James, the franchise's first black bachelor.
Next came the customary uprooting of every supposedly unsavory detail about her life. A 60-second TikTok by @feministmama parsed through it all: Kirkconnell liking an Instagram photo with a woman wearing a MAGA hat, pictures of her costumed in American Indian attire, social media posts in support of law enforcement. As Harrison mentioned above, the user also dedicated a big chunk to Kirkconnell's dad's voting history and political involvement, as if she is somehow responsible for that. (I was under the impression that we don't define women by the decisions made by their fathers and husbands.)
Then came the pictures of Kirkconnell at a 2018 Antebellum-themed fraternity party thrown by Kappa Alpha Order at Georgia College and State University, where students gathered on a plantation in Old South debutante-esque attire. The theme is beyond distasteful. Indeed, I've written over and over and over again that such displays are offensive. But no one knows whether Kirkconnell even understood the cultural significance of the event when she attended it as a college student, nor did anyone wait for her response before concluding she should be banished from public life.
"It's 2021," remarks @feministmama in that viral video. "Let's hold public figures accountable for their actions."
Kirkconnell is not running for president. She is not even running for the town council, or for the local school board. She is a contestant on a trashy dating competition where the most influence she'll have is via which products she may choose to endorse on Instagram, should anyone still want to work with her. It is a bit rich that anyone would devote such energy to canceling contestants on The Bachelor, of all things, considering that the show thrives on bringing out the worst aspects of its cast members in order to maximize that reality TV drama.
"I would say that you have to be really careful about what you are doing on social media," said James, the Bachelor himself, in a conversation with Entertainment Tonight. "Rumors are dark and nasty and can ruin people's lives. So I would give people the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully [Rachael] will have her time to speak on that."
But the controversy is no longer really about Kirkconnell: It is Harrison, who is not credibly accused of participating in or abetting racist behavior at all, who faces cancellation.
"I haven't heard Rachael speak on this yet, and until I actually hear this woman have a chance to speak, who am I to say any of this?" he told Rachel Lindsay, the franchise's first black Bachelorette. "I saw a picture of her at a sorority party five years ago, and that's it. I'm not defending Rachael [Kirkconnell]—I just know that 50 million people did that in 2018. That was a type of party that a lot of people went to."
He continued: "My guess? These girls got dressed and went to a party and had a great time. They were 18-years-old. Does that make it okay? I don't know, Rachel [Lindsay], you tell me…but where is this lens we're holding up and was that lens available and were we all looking through it in 2018?"
That lens is constantly changing. And, in a big way, it should—society has a knack for sharpening broad consensus on morality and justice as hindsight kicks in. But often that justice is retroactive, and it increasingly leaves no room for apologies.
Harrison is trying anyway. After releasing an initial apology, he agreed on Saturday to distance himself from the network. "To the Black community, to the BIPOC community: I am so sorry," he said in a groveling statement posted on Instagram. "My words were harmful. I am listening, and I truly apologize for my ignorance and any pain it caused you. The historic season of The Bachelor should not be marred or overshadowed by my mistakes or diminished by my actions. To that end, I have consulted with Warner Bros. and ABC and will be stepping aside for a period of time and will not join for the After the Final Rose special."
To sum things up: Merely objecting to the speed and fairness of someone else's cancellation is now itself grounds for canceling. What will the next standard be?